As we head into 2019, it’s worth saying that the sports fan has never been so blessed. We have so much to consume and the level of play in almost every league is better than it has ever been. Far from being artificially exciting as baseball was in the early 2000s, and far from being boring as the NHL was in the… well… early 2000s, we seem to have found a nice sweet spot of excitement, drama, and competitiveness. Success, however, always presents new challenges. With that in mind, here are 5 ways to improve sports in 2019.
1) Contract the Playoffs
This may be the most controversial of my suggestions on this list. The popular notion is that the playoffs are wonderful and we need more wonderful. I disagree. Hear me out.
The playoffs are supposed to be a mark of success and a signpost indicating that your team is among the best. Unfortunately, with expanded playoffs this is rarely true. Of the 12 teams that make the NFL playoffs each year, there are always 2-3 on the bottom end that “lucked” into winning their division or backed in as a 6 seed. There’s always a boring first-round game, and there’s always a second-round game that feels more like a warmup for the team coming off a bye than anything else. In the NHL and NBA, teams that barely have winning records get swept or nearly swept each year.
The playoffs are supposed to be a tournament of the best teams competing for the title of champion. But because of money, the lust for TV ratings, and the desire to remain in the consciousness of the average sports fan that rarely only likes one sport, they often turn into more of a second season.
Here’s what I would do:
Across the board—Implement a rule that you may not compete in the postseason unless you have a winning record in the regular season.
MLB—Get rid of the second wild card and make each round 7 games.
NFL—Eliminate the 6 seed. Make the wild card and the worst division winner play round 1, the winner plays the #1 seed in the second round. Seeds 2 & 3 play each other in round 2.
NHL & NBA—Cut out the first round entirely and only allow the top 4 teams (REGARDLESS OF DIVISION) in each conference to compete.
NASCAR—I dunno, probably burn things and scream a lot. Because, wow. That’s just…. wow.
2) Create a Salary Cap AND Floor in MLB
It works in the NFL, it works in the NHL, and it can work in MLB. For the love of Babe Ruth and hot dogs, MLB needs a salary cap. Since I’m probably Mr. Unpopular with this post in the first place, I’ll double down on the theme and assert my belief that professional athletes deserve to get paid well. They assume tremendous physical risk, fulfill a demand for the public, the industries they work in are hard to break into and even harder to excel in, and they are a step above indentured servants to the teams they play for. They should get theirs. Yes, it would be wonderful if nurses and teachers and firemen were all paid better than these guys. It would also be nice if I had all my hair and never gained a pound.
So, sure, pay the players a bunch of money and good for them. The problem with MLB isn’t actually what a person is getting paid, it’s WHO is paying them. Big market teams sign big time free agents to big money contracts simply because they can. Instead of looking for efficiency and thrift with their resources, the big boys just out muscle everyone else and throw positively stupid money at the athletes. There are maybe 6 teams in the league that have a realistic shot at signing Manny Machado or Bryce Harper this year. The Dodgers left players off their playoff roster that might have started on the A’s playoff roster. The money gap is a problem.
On the flip side are the small market teams. They’ve sadly embraced the role of being in the bargain basement. They do this because it’s possible to make a lot of money and not put a particularly good team on the field. Revenue sharing, MLB tv deals, and other league-wide welfare programs for the little guys are thinly veiled payoffs from the big market teams to keep things the way they are. The Chicagos, New Yorks, and Bostons of the league will keep buying championships and the Pittsburghs, Oaklands, and Tampas will just keep collecting their welfare money.
The answer is a salary cap and a salary floor. For example, make a rule that every team must spend between 120 and 160 million on their 25 man roster. Fun fact: the big boys will still make a bunch of money, and the little guys can still insist on revenue sharing. The only difference will be the lack of ability to buy a championship on one side and the lack of ability to cry poor on the other. It’ll finally be about who has the best team, the best organization, the best development, the best scouts, the best coaching, and the best strategy and not merely about who can afford the good players. Players can still get paid millions and will be able to decide what teams to play for based on which team gives them the best chance to be great. Finally, it’ll be about baseball.
3) Simplify the NFL Rulebook
The league is notorious for having positively awful referees. I’ve long been an advocate of an evaluation system that results in firing the bottom 10% every year. However, I find it hard to criticize the refs too much when the rule book reads like the space shuttle manual. No one knows what a catch is anymore, no one knows what pass interference means, no one has any idea what exactly it is to rough a passer, and on and on it goes. The NFL spends more time during games with its refs huddled around each other trying to figure out what to do and to only have them emerge from those huddles with vastly different interpretations of the rules from game to game. This is a symptom not only of bad refs, but an even worse rulebook. Fix it.
4) Fix Replay
The worst thing about watching sports these days is sitting through endless replays only to listen to a ref or ump or (worst of all) a commentator explain why they saw what 50 million people watching at home didn’t see. Replay was supposed to “get the call right.” It may serve that function sometimes, but too often it ends up just adding more mud to the water. Plus, it’s slower than molasses, the rules are illogical as to what can be reviewed via replay, and it’s become a strategy employed by managers and coaches to manipulate the system. If I have to endure one more 2-minute session of Joe Maddon standing at the top of the dugout holding up the game while his minions in the clubhouse review the last play like it’s the Zapruder film, I’m going to scream.
One of the major problems of replay is it expects humans to parse what happens and interpret those events down to the millisecond to decide what’s happening against the backdrop of a rule book built for a sport that happens at blazing speeds. To call a runner out at second because there’s a sliver of daylight between his foot and the base for less than half a second as he’s sliding into second isn’t baseball, it’s pedantry. To seriously expect a ball not to wiggle in the hands of a receiver as he maintains control of the ball while getting plastered by a linebacker isn’t football, it’s lunacy. I could go on, but you get the idea.
The NFL should initiate all replays from the booth and only allow replay for catches, in or out of bounds, too many men on the field, and spot-of-the-ball on crossing the first down line or goal line. I’d be open to reviewing holding calls and pass interference too because… wow… the refs are awful. MLB should eliminate replay altogether as it has not in any sense added anything useful to the game, and the NHL needs to limit replay to goaltender interference and if the puck crossed the goal line (the phantom offsides calls have to go).
5) Embrace the Cord Cutters
I haven’t had cable in 10 years. As a result, I haven’t watched the Pirates or Penguins regularly during the season in that amount of time. It’s also no coincidence that I haven’t attended as many games as I did in my youth when it was routine to watch almost every game with my Dad. It’s not that my love for the teams has diminished nor is it that my desire to watch has waned, it’s simply that sports aren’t important enough to pay the extortion fees of the local cable company. So, I’ll watch highlights and follow box scores and listen to the radio; and I’ll do all of those things on the internet.
You would think with the leagues struggling and battling each other for ratings and attention that they would make it easy to watch. Nope, not so. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t pay for MLB.tv or NHL.tv and watch my favorite teams because I commit the great sin of cheering for the local team. I live 20 miles from each stadium. I own two jerseys from each team and multiple other articles to display my fandom. I’m invested and interested; knowing the names of players and coaches, how they’re all performing lately, etc. But unless I hand over WAY too much money a month to also be assaulted by whatever freak show is on TLC these days I can’t watch the games.
It’s insane and for the life of me, I can’t understand why the leagues cater to cable companies they no longer need instead of catering to the people that matter. The NFL gets it. They’re not only on free TV most of the time, but they’ve embraced Amazon and other apps wherein you can watch games for much smaller fees than you would pay for cable, and sometimes you can even get the games for free. I almost never miss the Steelers, and lo and behold I… Pittsburgh sports superfan over here… find myself a bit more invested in the ‘miss the playoffs, full of drama queens, drive me crazy, tied to the Browns and lost to the Raiders’ football team than I am to the team that’s won 2 Stanley Cups in the past 3 years.
What I would do if I owned a team or if I had input in the league would be to tell the local cable companies they can broadcast the games if they want to, but I wouldn’t give them a dime for it (nor would I charge them). Regardless of what the cable company decided to do, I’d sell access to the team online through every venue that would offer it to any fan anywhere that wanted to watch it. It should be as easy for me to watch my favorite team as it is for me to watch a movie on Netflix. I guarantee the leagues would find a better connection with their fan base and would increase their ratings.
OK, I am with you as far as “the NFL playoffs need improvement” goes, but I want to dig deeper into the philosophy, particularly comparing the 6 team format we have now to your 5 team proposal.
1. One more playoff team provides 1 more playoff game for fans to attend (at some point who cares if Jason enjoys every game). It’s dearly beloved revenue as well for many folks in that city with a home game.
2. One more playoff team actually makes a number of regular season games more meaningful at the end of the season.
3. The league had 28 teams for a couple decade with 10 playoff teams (36%), now they have 32 teams with 12 playoff teams (38%). It if were still ten it would drop to (31%) which is a significantly bigger change than 36-38 was.
4. One reason we have 6 teams now is that we went from 3 to 4 divisions, and each division winner is rewarded with a home game. In your scenario, we’d effectively relegate the worst division winner to a wildcard team (functionally speaking their playoff route would be no different). And it’s easy to say “OK, why not,” but one of the real beautiful things about the 4 division per conference format is the way the NFL is able to make every team’s schedule in a division basically the same. Out of 16 games, each team in a division only has 2 games that are distinct from other’s in their division, producing a true division winner. Additionally, every team has the same number of conference games as each other team, making wildcard and home-field advantage tie-breakers utterly fair (for purposes of determining who are truly the best 6 teams in a conference).
If we took your idea and moved to 5 teams, I’d say you’d need to re-organize into 3 divisions again. And then you’d have divisions with a different number of teams and the commonality of schedule would suffer (mathematically we’d have to prove that, but I think it would for sure).
5. The other thing is this, if you look at just this year, both #6 seeds won in the first round. So you need to eliminate those teams by going to 5 (which would mean the Steeler would have to return their ring from the ’05 season, but then they’d get one in ’10, right?). How can we honestly say the Colts or Eagles do not deserve the playoffs when they each WON a game? They certainly have an argument for being there.
Here are some ideas I have to piggyback off yours and try to solve the same problems you are trying to solve, too.
1. Simply let ANY team with a 10 win season in the playoffs, seed them accordingly and deal with the number of games that results in. I doubt the number would ever go over 7. This is probably too stupid and risky for real life and would eliminate all concept of meaningful divisions. I’m not sure I like this, but it would be interesting to go back and reset the playoff lineup for the last 18 years and see what it would have given us. We could then empirically decide if we thought it would have made sense (side note: I’m guessing the BCS never did a historical regression on their formula).
2. Keep it at 6, but stop rewarding division winners with a home game and just seed the teams appropriately. The LAC would be the #2 seed in that scenario, and the Ravens would have been the #6 seed and would have traveled to Foxboro, instead of NE getting a bye because…Jets, Bills…
3. Shorten the season. I know the players want this because of injuries and toll it takes. They already hate the preseason (as do season ticket holders). Shorten the season and force teams to be playoff ready sooner instead of making that lucky run, or ruining the obvious best team’s chances because their rookies are exhausted in mid-December, or key players finally get hurt. You could even ADD playoff teams in a scenario like that and have a double elimination tournament instead of such a long regular season. It would be neat to work out scenarios based on real data and just see what this would look like, although I doubt it would happen.
So anyway, I am not trying to be argumentative. I find ‘game theory’ and stuff like that really interesting. How do you properly recognize a champion and appropriate reward teams? A fun discussion.
Aaaaaaaaaaaand, as far as the usefulness of NFL replay goes, I offer only this